I've been watching Eastenders with interest and enjoyment for about four years now. During that time, it has done a very good job of representing disability positively. It has several disabled characters. Donna Yates is my favourite, and one, Janet Mitchell, even has her roots in Walford royalty. Even Jane Beale is currently in a wheelchair, and you couldn't get a much more popular Eastenders character than her.
Some of Eastenders' recent positive disability related storylines have even brought humour to the very serious points they have been making.
However, Tuesday night's episode ruined all that progress. Tuesday night's episode ruined all my pride in Eastenders for its disability representation. Tuesday night's episode took Eastenders' disability representation back thirty years.
How? In the worst possible way, using two popular, beloved Walford legends. Ian and Jane Beale.
Jane revealed her fears to Stacey Slater that Ian no longer finds her attractive since the accident that has left her in a wheelchair. When Mick Carter asked Ian how his relationship with Jane is going, Ian responded "She's in a wheelchair!" He added that Jane doesn't need him bothering her, but for me the damage was already done. In those two minutes, Eastenders represented a very old fashioned, outdated attitude towards disabled people having romantic and sexual relationships. Much to my sadness, the attitude that Eastenders represented on Tuesday night was the very opposite of the attitude they represented last year, when Donna Yates had a one night stand with Fatboy Chubb.
I know that there is one very big difference between Jane Beale and Donna Yates. That is that Donna Yates has been disabled since birth, while Jane Beale has been disabled for about a year and became disabled in middle age. However, to me, that difference makes the way this very important issue has been covered through Jane even worse.
Through Ian Beale, Eastenders sent out a very negative message to disabled viewers, in particular to wheelchair users and viewers who have become disabled later in life. Through Ian Beale, Eastenders sent out the message that non disabled people will be unlikely to want a sexual relationship with wheelchair users, particularly those who have become disabled later in life. Worst of all, through Ian Beale, Eastenders sent out the message that becoming disabled changes a person's life in very negative ways, and that it could even lead to the end of their marriage or long-term relationship.
The opinion that Ian Beale revealed in Tuesday night's episode of Eastenders is exactly the sort of opinion that led the parents of many disabled people I know to worry that their children would never find love or get married. However, that was when I was growing up, in the 20th century. This is the end of 2016, not the beginning of 1985, when Ian Beale first stepped onto BBC1 in Eastenders' very first episode.
I have long ago realised that disabled people do fall in love and get married and have children, too, even if they haven't been disabled since birth. I have long ago started to think that the opinion that Ian Beale revealed in Tuesday night's episode of Eastenders is an old-fashioned, outdated one.
Eastenders is one of the UK's national institutions. It has a massive audience, and as a result, a great power to influence the attitudes of that massive audience towards the issues it covers. It has the power to change the minds of that massive audience about the issues it covers.
In fact, Ian Beale himself is a national institution. I knew about him before I had ever properly watched Eastenders. So he himself has the power to influence Eastenders' audience through his words and actions.
I have been physically disabled since birth. Now, as a disabled adult and a disability rights campaigner, I make every effort every day to show the world that life with a disability doesn't have to be negative. Most of all, I make every possible effort to show the world that becoming disabled doesn't have to mean the end of the life someone had before.
I am deeply disappointed that Eastenders, a national institution with such a great record in positive disability representation, and so much power over its audience, has covered such an important disability issue so negatively. In two minutes of storyline, it has done the exact opposite of everything I work hard to do every day.
As a disabled viewer, I would ask Eastenders to remember its power over its audience at all times. I would be very pleased to see it return to positive representation of disabled people and our issues at the earliest opportunity.